Governor to lawmakers: Party strife undermines democracy

Gov. John Hickenlooper gave his sixth State of the State address celebrating bipartisan cooperation in front of a sharply divided General Assembly. U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers were in attendance. 

There’s one thing both parties agreed on Thursday during Gov. John Hickenlooper’s sixth State of the State address: Go Broncos! Beyond that, discord ruled.

In his 43-minute address, Hickenlooper touted last year’s achievements: a state rural economic development program that brought 100 jobs to Costilla County, the completion of a state water plan, a new Outdoor Recreation Industry Office to boost tourism, and state promotion that resulted in 9,000 new jobs from companies that have relocated to Colorado.

But significant challenges and hard realities lie ahead, the governor said. At the top of his list: the state budget. Hickenlooper’s proposed 2016-17 budget asks the legislature to increase the shortfall in K-12 education by $50 million, and to cut $20 million from the state’s public colleges and universities.

The state needs sources for funding transportation projects, Hickenlooper said, noting Republicans have proposed $3 billion in bonds, but without new revenue to pay for those bonds, “that’s like trying to drive across the state with a dollar’s worth of gas.”

Hickenlooper told lawmakers that firearms suicides have outpaced the number of Coloradans who die in car crashes. New safety education programs, like those used to curb auto deaths, should inform the public about the links between mental health, suicides and guns, the governor said, to applause from Democrats and stone silence from Republicans.

He’s also pushing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, noting it aligns with the state climate plan. As part of his energy strategy, Hickenlooper said the state needs to continue to protect clean air and water, and move toward a “cleaner, more sustainable energy future that is as reliable as what we have now.” His administration plans to continue to work with the oil and gas industry on innovative and safer ways to extract those resources.

Hickenlooper scolded lawmakers for partisan gridlock that tied the legislature in knots last year on reforming the state’s construction defects law that developers say prevents condos from being built. He asked lawmakers to work together on affordable housing and passing a law to change how a hospital provider fee is designated under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, and which Democrats say will free up as much as $1 billion in the next five years for transportation and education. The hospital provider fee is a per-bed surcharge that public and private hospitals pay and is then redistributed to help hospitals that provide healthcare to low-income patients. 

“If we can’t make this reasonable change – like many already allowed under TABOR – then what choice do we have but to re-examine TABOR?” Hickenlooper asked. “Right now, no one can say with a straight face that our budget rules work for us.” Coloradans are “fed up” with lack of education funding, traffic congestion and other problems with state roads.

TABOR is the voter-approved 1992 constitutional amendment that requires the state to seek voter permission to increase taxes. That’s its public face. But buried in the fine print is a maze of fiscal constraints that Republicans have cheered for keeping the state budget under check and Democrats have bemoaned for causing massive budget cuts to K-12 and higher education.

Hickenlooper said compromise once was a point of pride for lawmakers, not something to avoid. “In today’s politics, we revel in getting our way without giving an inch, and stopping the other guy from getting anything done.”

A “you’re either with us or against us” attitude hurt the state, the nation and “undermines democracy,” the governor said. And whether people believe in government or not, Coloradans “want us to keep finding solutions.” He asked lawmakers to work across the aisle. “Let’s forgo cheap shots in favor of civility and productive dialogue.”

One Republican said the speech lacked vision. Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth, said while people may agree on what Colorado’s problems are, the governor provided few fixes.

Dore agreed with Hickenlooper that the hospital provider fee is a major state issue but called the governor’s comments “hyperbole that make for good press.”

Speaker Pro Tem Dan Pabon, D-Denver, said the speech appealed to both parties. He appreciated Hickenlooper’s reminder that Colorado is the best state in the nation and liked his suggestions on how to keep it that way, such as adding outdoor recreation trails, dealing with mine wastewater spills and reducing childhood poverty.

“I thought his policy proposals were both Republican and Democrat,” Pabon said. “Everyone found something to like and to not like.”

“The state of the state is a poetic statement,” Pabon said. “The devil is in the details, which is prose, not poetry.” But in a General Assembly with chambers divided by the two parties, “you have to start out on an optimistic role.”

Photo: Marianne Goodland

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.